My Husband and I Bonded Over Death
When planning our wedding, my husband and I decided we would write our own vows. Our love ranges from quirky and nerdy to morbid and minimalist, and we wanted to capture that personality in the ceremony. We worked on them separately but both left out the traditional finish: "till death do us part." After all, death is what brought us together.
When I was 23, I met a shy, handsome man at my office while having a cigarette. Eric gave me his phone number after a few days. We talked frequently and took all of our smoke breaks together. We planned a date but still saw each other every day before that. One of those days happened to coincide with the six-month "anniversary" of my mom's passing. It was all very fresh. I co-authored a cooking blog with one of my oldest friends and we'd agreed to make both of our posts about her that week. It was a small thing but gave me a lot of joy. I had spent the weekend making waffles with my older brother so I could write about family and memories. I realized Eric could have seen it on Facebook, but I kind of doubted that he was actually reading it.
"Oh, I saw your blog post today. I'm sorry about your mom," he said.
I braced internally. It was going to happen again. I tried to process things individually but they would hit me too quickly and the sadness would become overwhelming. My coworkers all knew her and were just as shocked with grief as anyone but had mostly unhelpful things to say. I didn't want to hear any more awkward advice or well-meaning platitudes. I'd put off mentioning it because I assumed that, like everyone else, he couldn't possibly understand.
Then, he added, "I lost my dad when I was 18."
He laid out the short version of his story, one that all survivors of loss eventually develop. His dad had battled a variety of serious illnesses for several years but seemed to be on the mend. One morning, when Eric woke up, the paramedics were there and his dad suddenly wasn't. The most likely cause of death was sleep apnea, a known condition of his. It was a cold comfort as his family tried to rally together and pick up the pieces.
It sometimes felt like I was hurting people just by telling the truth.
I was floored. I knew I would meet others who had some kind of experience with this sudden loss. But so far, it felt like I just made everyone uncomfortable. A sudden death like my mother's makes everyone you know think about losing the people they love the most. It sometimes felt like I was hurting people just by telling the truth. My peers mostly tried to compare it to the loss of their grandparents, an extreme injustice. Even family members, whom I normally turned to for guidance and experience, were woefully out of their depth—their parents were still alive. Here was someone I could actually talk to.
Some people tried to tell me that it might not hurt forever but Eric didn't. He knew how painful loss was, many times over, and knew that was an impossible expectation. We shared our stories of death in greater detail. He held my hand when I cried all the way through mine—the emergency appendectomy, her unexplained downward spiral, and the impossibly painful decision to let her go. It hurt but it was refreshing to go into detail without seeing his face fill with pity.
Part of grieving is discovering and rediscovering all of the minutiae—turning over all the stones and looking at a lifetime of memories and moments that made up the missing person. Those left behind cling to them. The closer Eric and I became, the more glimpses I got into the long-term feeling of grief. His dad had been in the Army and, at his funeral, Eric had been presented with the flag. Hearing "Taps" would usually get him a little choked up. Early in our relationship, we were talking about our favorite things and finding remarkably similar tastes in movies and TV.
"Did you watchPinky and the Brain?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," he answered with enthusiasm. "I loved that show! I used to watch it with my dad." His smile fell and his eyes welled. He'd shifted very quickly from excitement to the sadness of grief. It had all come rushing back, just like that. I could only think to hug. The tears came and went quickly.
"It doesn't get better, does it?" I asked when he was a bit calmer. I waited for all of my fears to become real.
"No, it does," he insisted. "It stops hurting all the time, but not completely. You may not always know what's going to hurt. But you have to hang onto the good stuff, even when it does."
I had been fighting to find good memories and failing miserably. Images of her in the hospital, swollen everywhere with fingers and toes turning a dark purple-black and starting to crumble away, haunted my brain every time I tried to remember a Christmas or birthday. Time would help heal things but it wasn't going to make these things go away all on its own. Eric understood how important it was for me to talk about my mom and to remember the person she was before everything fell apart. In sharing the stories, I found ways I could rebuild my thoughts and stop replaying the sadness on a constant loop.
I never thought 'Nuanced Understanding of Parental Loss' would top my list of desired qualities in a husband.
We've handled death again twice, both times on my side. We definitely have our differences in processing. At my grandfather's funeral, Eric was moved to tears by the military ceremony while I was uncharacteristically dry-eyed. But the next time, I cried deeply listening to stories of my longtime family friends losing their matriarch. I cried for the beauty of her love story with her own husband, who had died a few months before. I cried for all the people she had touched and loved as a neighborhood den mother. Mostly, I cried for the children and grandchildren—who were a bit closer to my age—because of who they were losing. Because I knew exactly how it felt to see the light of your family extinguished.
When I made my list of dream qualities for a future husband, 15 years before I met Eric, I lacked the maturity to understand the importance of shared experiences. I wouldn't necessarily have put "Nuanced Understanding of Parental Loss" anywhere on it, even after Mom's death. There are a lot of ways in which our lives are very different: We grew up in different decades, with different lifestyles and different expectations about education, finances, and morals. By some definitions, it shouldn't work.
But when I wake up in the morning, almost five years after my mom's passing, with tears in my eyes after seeing her face in my dreams, I know my husband will have open arms and soft words for me. When I shoot the bird at sappy Mother's Day commercials that make me swell with rage, he does the same in solidarity. And when we have to face death again, we'll do it with the irreplaceable support of someone who knows how to manage it.
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